Lurching Through Nisan

In what was, in retrospect, a striking metaphor for this Hebrew month of Nisan, a congregant asked me at services last night whether it was permissible to distribute special memorial candles for Yom Hashoah- Holocaust Commemoration Day- during these concluding days of Passover.

To phrase his question another way- can we disturb the sacred obligation to celebrate our ancient redemption with a jarring reminder of contemporary exile and destruction?

Such an interesting question, and so very Jewish…

If one were to graph this month of Nisan in terms of mood and existential state of being, it would rather closely resemble some kind of parabolic curve. The month begins with two weeks of rising expectations, culminating in the joyous celebration of our Seders, and reminders of our special relationship with God. But by the eighth day of the holiday, we are reciting Yizkor for departed loved ones, and Passover ends on a less than exhilarating note. Just a few days later, on the 27th of Nisan, we mark Yom Hashoah V’Hagvurah, when we consciously and intentionally remind ourselves of the Nazi Holocaust, which represents the worst possibilities of exile and powerlessness. But then, as Nisan ends, we begin yet another upturn in mood as we anticipate Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day.

This time of year batters our senses with a unique assortment of stimuli that are cognitively dissonant one with the other, and we are supposed to be able to somehow make sense of it all. As a rabbi, whose professional responsibility it is to facilitate an encounter with this rollercoaster of emotions for the Jews to whom I minister, I find it extraordinarily challenging. I believe totally and completely that to live as a Jew in the twenty-first century requires of us to live somewhere within this wickedly fickle parabola, never unaware of the tragedy that befell us during the Shoah, but also equally appreciative of the redemption that the modern State of Israel, in all of its messiness, represents.

Without a doubt, I find it so challenging as a rabbi because I find it challenging as a Jew. Piaget once said that the secret to talking to children about difficult and complicated subjects is to understand them ourselves first, and then we can translate them into age-appropriate concepts for children. So it is with my work. I am in an eternal quest for understanding of those remarkable events of the past hundred years of Jewish history- ranging from the indescribably awful to the remarkably wonderful- so that I might better transmit their significance to those whom I’m charged with teaching.

I realize, of course, that this is an unending process. There is no resolution to the quest, for there is no “understanding” the Shoah, and Israel as an existential phenomenon will continue to challenge Diaspora Jewry as long as we are honest enough to allow it to. And because it is unending, there is a certain familiarity to these seasonal feelings so much a part of this time of year.

I wish you all a sweet end to this holiday, and rich meaning from the powerful weeks that lie ahead.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.